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Despite disability, student remains true to himself

By Erin Kirkland, Managing Photo Editor
Published October 25, 2012

Some have called him an inspiration. Others, a survivor. But to LSA freshman and quadriplegic Drew Clayborn, it’s simple: “I’m just Drew.”

The ventilator echoes behind him, a gentle reminder of why I’m in his room in the first place. It seems to complete his sentences, acting as an extra form of punctuation.

At first, I’m afraid to ask about his accident, but trying to dance around the question isn’t getting me anywhere: “Do you mind telling me what happened that day? What went through your mind?”

But he doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s quite used to the interviews. Three local Detroit TV stations — WJBK, WDIV, and WXYZ — have all profiled him. You name it, he’s done it. But I’m not interested in formulaic interviews consisting of his favorite color, cheesy poses and microphones that engulf half his face like the local TV stations. Instead, I’m interested in Drew.

And who is Drew?

His eyes light up, a smile etches across his face, and he leans back in his chair. “He’s this crazy kid willing to do anything at any moment.”

It’s this crazy kid — the one who said high school “went too easy,” the one who needed to find a way to stay entertained, the one who proudly wore purple booty shorts to his high school spirit week, the one who always pushed the envelope — who pushed it a bit too far.

He talks about his accident in his essay application to the University, titled “The Date of My Accident.” In addition to playing on the football team in his hometown of Commerce, Mich., he was a trombone player in the band and earned a role in his school’s theatrical production of "Seussical: The Musical" during his sophomore year.

During rehearsals for the performance, his high school director asked if anyone had any special talents to add to the performance, and Drew claimed he could do a backflip. Though he had never actually done one before, he rehearsed several times with his friend’s mother who owned a dance studio, and the first time he did the flip without her help was while “goofing off” in the hallway after school. Little did he know then it would also be his last.

Drew doesn’t remember what happened next. In fact, he doesn’t remember the first week in the hospital, thanks to the drugs that helped ease his pain.

What he later learned is this: He landed on and broke his back, rolled over and threw up. He then received CPR from his freshman football coach until paramedics came. He was unable to breathe on his own for an hour until the paramedics put a tracheotomy tube down this throat, and was then airlifted to University Hospital, which would become his home for the next three months.

As he recalls the story, he jokes in typical Drew fashion that he wishes he had remembered the transport since it was the only time he’s been in a helicopter.

Though much of the first week remains a blur, his father, LeDon Clayborn recalls that every time Drew would wake up, he would ask what happened and apologized for what he had done. It wasn’t until a week after the accident that Drew finally remembered. A nurse told him. Straightforward. Just the facts.

His initial thought was relief. He would probably get an extension on his English essay that was due. But after that realization, the permanence set in and Drew accepted the inevitable.

He was paralyzed.

***

When asking others about their impressions of Drew, they often talk about his strength and independent attitude, which might seem ironic due to his need for 24-hour care.

For his family, it seems as though Drew’s lack of burdening self-pity propels the entire family past the experience.

“I think he still wants to prove to his dad he could do whatever he thinks I want him to. He’s striving to be independent and to grow with life,” LeDon says.

“The whole family moved forward because Drew moved forward,” his 19-year-old sister Desirae explains.

His nurse, Kandi Epifanio, is his arms and legs. But everything else is Drew. She recalls his courage in the wake of his accident.

“He turned to me and said he was glad that this happened to him and no one in his family because he could handle it,” she said. “He’s not resentful for what happened. He’s done everything but given up.”

His confidence is contagious. In all the time I’ve spent with him the past few months, I’ve never seen him falter. While there are occasional fallen moments, Epifanio says they are more out of frustration — days when the simplest things others take for granted become a small battle, like itchy noses and watery eyes.

The most sensitive moment I witnessed was Drew’s recollection of a conversation he had with his mother, in which she revealed after the accident she had struggled with whether or not to abort him when she was pregnant with him.

Drew’s voice grows quiet and he pauses. His already scratchy voice drops to a whisper and his eyes bow down before glancing my way.

“I told her that she probably should have,” he says.

When I ask if he often truly feels that way, he responds: “I mean, it’s out of truth for everyone’s sake.”

However, a stranger walking into this household doesn’t get that sense of despair. It’s a home and family built on love. A place where LeDon’s booming laugh fills the house at any given time and Drew’s wheezy laugh is heard from his ground-floor bedroom.

When Drew finds out his first Math 115, Calculus I exam score is an A-minus, the house fills with cheers — “Welcome to college! That’s the Michigan Difference” — and Drew beams, but not without a slight jab at himself for the minus.

Would I necessarily ask an incoming freshman that isn’t paralyzed what they hoped their legacy on campus would be? Maybe. Maybe not. But suddenly, the idea that he’s a survivor seems to overshadow the other aspects of his life. Of course, he’s an incredible vision of courage, but he’s also an 18-year-old boy and a freshman in college trying to figure life out.

What I can tell you is this: The medical equipment in his bedroom is overpowered by a large stylized print of Jay-Z that adorns his wall. He tapes “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” during the day to watch at night, and he loves “South Park.” He’s an informatics major who cringes at the thought of taking his freshman writing seminar next semester. He dreams of one day working for Apple or Google and would do just about anything to get closer to that dream.

“Shoot, I’d dress up like Steve Jobs. I’d just be a Steve Jobs model to be around people that smart and who are able to make that kind of technology,” he says.

Above all, his sense of humor has carried him through the experience. His senior quote, after all, was “Don’t Think, Just Jump.”

But with his story comes the added burden of being deemed an inspirational figure, something most freshmen in college don’t have to worry about.

“I usually just smile and say thank you. I don’t know how quite to respond. My entire life I’ve been a go-on-er, just a pusher. If people find that inspiring, that’s great,” he says.

***

Due to financial constraints and the state of Michigan’s insurance policies related to nursing, Drew cannot afford 24/7 care in Ann Arbor and must live at home. Drew received a full tuition scholarship from the University and has a room set up in Alice Lloyd Residence Hall for which the family can’t currently afford nursing. In order to get Drew on campus, the family needs to raise an average of $1,000 a week to hire one full time and one part time nurse for extra nursing care.

The family is hosting a fundraising event, a 5K run on Sunday, Oct. 28 in Novi, which the family had hoped would raise the $30,000 needed for one semester’s worth of additional nursing. But with low registration numbers, they’re working on salvaging the money invested in the race and working toward another future fundraiser.

Until he gets the money, he will continue to commute from Commerce, about a 40-minute drive to campus. Though the commute isn’t bad, and Drew has season football tickets, he said it’s still difficult to receive e-mails about campus events he can’t participate in.

The first thing most people might notice about Drew is his chair, but in academia, the University isn’t giving him an easy way out. Homework assignments are expected to be turned in on time, and his exams are the same day as everyone else.

“They’ve just made it seem like I’m a normal person,” he commented.

Instead, something he has to deal with is a different kind of first impression. While most might see him in the chair and hear the equipment’s buzz, Drew has his own methods for asserting his individuality.

“A lot of the time I will have to put a little something in, so they don’t look down on me. There’s nothing mentally wrong with me and I want to make sure they realize that. I might say something really smart,” he says.

He also recalls on one occasion during the beginning of the semester, when his computer programming teacher, not cognizant of the details of his accident or his level of mobility, treated him deferentially.

The next class Drew went early and the two talked his accident, and since then he says there’s been a noticeable difference in the way the professor speaks to him.

Drew’s best friend, Lyndsay Burke, an LSA and School of Music, Theatre & Dance freshman, said school is an important part of Drew’s life and a form of asserting his self-sufficiency.

“He cherishes whatever independence he can get,” she says.

Despite his physical challenges, there is a possibility that his independence could grow, and he still holds onto that hope. Thanks to current advancements in technology, there is the possibility that in three to four years he could be off the ventilator, or even walking again, and he says he’s even starting to feel some sensations in his body.

Until then, he’ll continue moving forward by concentrating on maintaining his calculus grade and cheering for Team 133. He’s more than just his story of courage.

But in describing himself, Drew still puts it best. He’s not first and foremost a Wolverine, and he’s not just a survivor. He’s just himself.

“The one thing I’ve always just kind of stuck with is to make sure that I’m just Drew still. I’m still just Drew. This hasn’t changed me at all.”

— Kirkland can be reached at eakirk@umich.edu or on Twitter: @eakirkland.